You and I have a job, too

Marco was laughing, although there was a edge to it. We were having breakfast in the big, expansive dining room which opens up on all sides to the tropical trees. At night Mafia Island’s resident flying fox community fills the fading night sky, swooping and diving, feeding off the fruit and turning the air into rustles of furry activity.

Sometimes the squirrels, which are building a nest in the high ceiling, drop small branches on your head. We still don’t know where they’re hiding. That’s part of the fun.

The Shamba Kilole Eco Lodge sits just inside the gate where those of us who want to wander, dive, and explore this magical site have to pay a daily fee of about $26.00 (that’s on top of everything else). That fee is directed towards all manner of essential marine conservation work and local community projects. Both are important in the efforts not only to keep Mafia’s unique biodiversity protected, but also to educate and engage the local community. Those efforts are echoed in other parts of Africa, as dedicated conservationists who grew up in very similar villages have committed themselves to the business of protecting coastal heritage, fishing communities and the welfare of the extraordinary creatures so many of us wish to see.

Like the whale shark, whose stately presence I hope to enjoy before leaving, albeit it’s at the end of the season. Maybe. Maybe not.

Marco and I were discussing clients. It’s a story I’m hearing more often these days.

He and his wife Francesca have been here for about thirty years. The Lodge reflects the great love they have for this place. It’s beautifully appointed. You have power and hot water, an energetic fan to move the humid air and keep things from getting too hot, and all the necessary amenities. Which is more than I can say for a great many places. The diving here is world class, among the best reefs in the world, and the biodiversity is extraordinary. Down side, I have very intermittent internet, which is a given not only in Africa but also because of our isolation from the mainland. As with all things you learn to cope.

That was Marco’s point.

Many of us who travel today say we’d be happy to pay more to be where there are efforts being made towards sustainability and conservation.

That’s just the first step, saying that we support these efforts.

The next is how we show up there. This was what was making Marco laugh.

When you and I are guests at an eco lodge, there are a few things that we need to do in order to support those efforts, to make them successful. You may be on vacation, but for the lodges and outfits which are trying very hard to secure a future for the places and creatures we crave, we also have to pitch in.

What that means is changing a few habits that we may be accustomed to at home, but which can have big consequences in the remote areas and delicate ecosystems in the world’s best protected places.

Here’s what that means:

  1. Turn off your lights, fan and if there is a/c, turn that off, too, when you leave for your daily adventures. Power costs, and it’s a pure waste when you aren’t in the room.
  2. Don’t bring or use appliances like hair dryers. They use huge amounts of energy. Besides, being in a lodge like this truly invites being as natural as possible. Despite the humidity, things dry out- including your hair- swiftly. Do you shave? Get a little rough. It fits right in. Or snitch your partner’s razor. You’ll survive.
  3. Don’t flush anything other than what’s recommended down the toilet. Not only do wet wipes not like American sewage systems, they are deadly for places like this. The local TP in most cases is just fine. However, in many places in the world, you and I toss the TP into the trash can. You get used to it.
  4. Pack out used batteries. Dumping toxic batteries anywhere in the world is poor form. In developing countries, and islands like Mafia, there are no proper systems in place for safe disposal. Bring them home and get rid of them properly.
  5. Eschew long showers. Yes, you have hot water. However, learning to take much shorter showers (and that includes those of us with very long hair, and that would be me) is not only responsible, but if you continue the habit at home it will pay off. One thing I learned in Kenyan bush showers was to get wet, turn off the bucket spigot over my head, lather up with shampoo and soap, rinse fast, turn off the water again, condition my hair, comb it out fast, and rinse off. I ended up leaving plenty of good hot water for the next person, who appreciated it, and so did the staff who didn’t have to heat as much water. People notice and they appreciate it.
  6. Walk instead of drive whenever you can. For example, here there is a young man who drives you to the dive center. It’s hardly a mile away. It’s just as easy to peg it over as opposed to using gas to drive such a short distance. Everyone else walks, for the most part. Not only do you meet locals along the way, but you can walk off some of the fabulous food that may lodges offer. As I am eating lunch here as I write this, I can attest.
  7. About that food. As Westerners we are more than a little spoiled to be able to get Chilean grapes and nectarines in the dead of Northern Hemisphere winter. At lodges like this, the food you and I get is seasonal, ridiculously fresh and beautifully prepared. That’s why it’s called eco-cuisine. It’s a little unreasonable to want not only what the owners can’t source locally, but to demand foods that are expensive to ship in. That’s precisely what eco-means. Being vegan isn’t eco, if what you eat has to be shipped from far away. Here it’s the one kilometer rule. Much of what you eat is sourced virtually right next door. As this is a lush island, and much grows here locally, a great deal of what gets tossed into my salad and the seafood on my plate was in its own habitat hours before. It doesn’t get fresher, nor better-tasting. It doesn’t hurt me to trade Honey Crisp apples for local papaya. Be sure to advise people well in advance about food sensitivities or allergies. But being overly picky about what’s on your plate can ruin your experience, and frustrate the cook, who often has better options for you.
  8. Please don’t over-order and under-eat. It pains everyone to see wasted food. A friend was at a Thanksgiving dinner for ex-pats in Moshi, Tanzania, and she was horrified at all the food that was left on the plates. It’s fair to say that people in developing countries where so many of the world’s gems exist have a rough time getting adequate sustenance. Not only is it wasteful, but it doesn’t make friends for us to pile loads of edibles on our plates which later end up in the dog bowl or worse, the garbage. There are far too many people going without. The chefs have to work hard to please you. In all frankness it likely doesn’t please them to see expensive food go to waste, and wasted food is an added cost for the lodges.
  9. Respect local efforts. By this I mean, if you show up as a ecovolunteer, otherwise known as voluntourism, please don’t hand out money or tips or gifts to those locals who are sharing a beach clean up effort with you. Or whatever the job may be. Local organizations are working hard to engage villagers in these efforts, in part to educate the locals about the importance of ecology and conservation. If you and I hand out money or gifts, that forever changes the conversation for the local agency. After that the locals will often only do the cleanup if paid. Since these organizations don’t have the funds to do that, the cleanup either doesn’t happen, or they have to start all over again. Better, if you have something to offer, ask your organizer where that gift or those funds can do the most good. They will know. There’s almost always some kind of school project, dispensary, or water improvement effort that can really use your contributions. That way what you can provide will often have a much greater and more lasting value than simply giving out money for what needs to be a labor of love on everyone’s part. The other piece of this is that if you give out money, you’ve effectively taught the children to skip school and beg. Education is already a tough sell and a hard road ahead for many. Tempting the kids, whose families need cash, can potentially mean that the parents send them to beg rather than to better ensure their future by staying in classrooms.
  10. Do a little research in advance. If you know the area, the concerns that touch people, those can help you cultivate a greater sensitivity. It’s not just knowing a few key phrases in the local language. It’s understanding the concerns people have, and the small but critical things you can do to make their job, and your stay so much more enjoyable. That way you and I are part of what’s working.
  11. And finally, be patient with your internet connection. If you spend a fair bit of time in isolated places like this, and I do, you get accustomed to having outages. In fact, those are great times to remember how to be where you are. While this is my work, and the internet allows me to produce articles, those articles are well-served by the time I spend off line, in the water, playing with the local rescued strays and having long talks with the locals. That, of course, is the whole point. Getting frustrated is useless. Besides, it’s hard to enjoy paradise if your office can constantly penetrate your hard-won state of Zen.

Plenty of us who travel these days state that we’d be willing to pay a little more to stay at a place which has committed to sustainability and conservation practices. You and I also have a job to do. It really doesn’t take that much effort on our part. While yes, it may well be a vacation, but think of this way. It’s also an opportunity to take a vacation from habits we may have at home which are wasteful, but we aren’t all that aware of. The end result may well be lower food, energy and water costs. That’s a nice outcome for everyone, including your wallet.

Sustainability and conservation practices are for all of us, not for the other guy. When you and I build those habits, not only are we adding value to the magical places which truly want us to enjoy ourselves, but they are excellent practices to put in place back home, teach your kids and model for those around us.

That’s one way to bring a piece of Paradise home with us.